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Electronics: Budget Satcoms

If you want to stay permanently connected when sailing offshore, satellite communication is the only way to go. The options for sailors have never been better
           With today’s technology, it’s cheap and easy to stay in touch from anywhere   

           With today’s technology, it’s cheap and easy to stay in touch from anywhere   

Modern satcom devices and network airtime costs have dropped in price recently as more “birds” are launched and more constellations are created. This has resulted in several low-cost voice and data, or data-only, communicators being made available to the budget-conscious sailor.

Some systems allow the user to connect a smartphone or tablet to the Internet for both voice and data services; others simply transmit tracking data back to pre-determined contacts back home, via SMS or email. Either way, they are becoming a good deal more user-friendly, both in setting-up and in operation, although you need to study the small print of the service agreements carefully as there are numerous “extras” you can be charged for. Some providers offer a Pay-as-you-Go service, but many monthly airtime contracts involve signing up for a minimum of a year to get the best rates.

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SHOUT NANO

The Shout Nano is a handheld, global, two-way satellite messaging and personal tracking device that utilizes Iridium’s SBD service to provide GPS location, free text messaging and emergency alerting. Being a two-way device means alerts can be confirmed and details of the emergency sent and updated in detail.

The Nano can be used to send a quick “check in” manually, with one button press. However, being equipped with a high-resolution color LCD and an on-screen keyboard, both “canned” (predesignated and stored) and free text messages can be transmitted. It can also be set to automatically “wake up” periodically and send a position report to a designated monitoring center.

Having a 1.95Ah rechargeable Li-Ion battery and ultra-low power consumption (less than 35mA asleep) means it can send a position report every 10 minutes, over more than 10 days, on one charge.

The system also has a covered emergency button at the back that, when pressed, will send a distress alert to a pre-programmed contact. nalresearch.com

MAZU/SkyMate mSeries

Mazu is an iPad app that, when connected wirelessly to SkyMate mSeries satcom hardware, offers a comprehensive choice of data-only features, including e-mail, SMS, SOS, weather, navigation and remote tracking. It has no voice-carrying capabilities, however, and is currently only available for the iPad.

The Mazu app relies on other components to make it function, primarily the SkyMate ISI-2000 system interface, which also provides Wi-Fi access for the tablet. It also requires a compact, external Smart Antenna containing an Iridium SBD (Short Data Burst) transceiver and GPS receiver. Finally, the system includes a four-button keypad for alerts and SOS signaling. All these components (except the iPad) can be bought together in the mSeries package, with all necessary cables and installation instructions.

The SkyMate module collects data from your vessel’s instrument network, so you can not only be tracked easily, but boat data, such as position, speed and heading, can be transmitted using SMS or e-mail via an externally-mounted satellite transceiver such as the Mazu Smart Antenna. The beauty of the Mazu app is that it integrates SkyMate with your regular e-mail client, so once the new account has been set up you’ll receive e-mail just as if you were connected directly to the Internet ashore. You can also keep a blog on SkyMate’s website, for all your family and friends to follow your progress.

In an emergency, a dedicated SOS button procedure allows the user to send a distress alert directly to the GEOS rescue network, as well as alerting certain pre-designated contacts by SMS.

The app can also handle weather data, including GRIB files, for up to seven days ahead, plus seven-day point forecasts, live buoy data, NEXRAD radar images, NOAA zone forecasts, weather alerts and tropical storm information.

An additional option is the 16-channel Sentry monitoring kit (+$250), for those who wish to remotely monitor their boat’s position, and alarms such as intruder, anchor drag, bilge level and battery voltage. Power for the hardware is 12/24V and standby consumption only 4W.

Once you’ve bought the app and all the required hardware, you’ll need to sign up to one of the many connection plans, starting at $39.99 per month. The Sentry remote monitoring package is an additional $10 per month. mazu-marine.com

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IRIDIUM GO!

Iridium has been providing a relatively low-cost satcom service to sailors and travelers for a couple of decades. Not only does it provide a choice of portable phones capable of voice and data transmission, but its new Wi-Fi data/voice module, Iridium Go! is also proving extremely popular. It works just like a Wi-Fi wireless router in that it provides a hotspot to which up to five devices, such as smartphones and tablets, can connect wirelessly, within a range of 100 feet. The module then enables access to the Internet via its constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, using the SBD method to transmit data in the most economical way. It can also provide voice connection through the same terminal.

This rugged, pocket-sized, portable unit is powered by a 3.6Ah rechargeable battery pack and comes with USB, 12Vdc and 110Vac chargers.

Two levels of service are available, although the most useful to cruising sailors is the Iridium Mail and Web option, which provides fast, queued e-mail, pop-up/ad blocker and data compression to speed up transmission.

Airtime is monthly with a minimum of three months, and the cost depends on whether you want data alone, or voice and data. iridium.com

GARMIN IN-REACH EXPLORER+

Originally the Delorme inReach, Garmin’s inReach Explorer+ combines two-way messaging, SOS alerting and vessel tracking abilities, using the Iridium LEO satellite network. In addition, it features pre-loaded charts with onscreen GPS routing and a built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer.

Although the unit was originally intended as a terrestrial location device, Garmin has expanded its capabilities to ensure it can become an essential part of a sea-going vessel’s safety inventory. You can also now pair an iOS or Android device with the inReach Explorer+ and, using Garmin’s EarthMate app, have access to downloadable maps and send messages using the mobile device’s own keyboard.

The Explorer+ not only allows the user to automatically send tracking information to third parties via a web-based mapping facility, but it also enables data such as e-mail and SMS to be transmitted and received at any time, making it easy for those on ocean crossings to keep in touch with family, friends or work.

In an emergency, the user can send a distress call to the GEOS global rescue response center by simply pressing an SOS button, in a similar fashion to an EPIRB or PLB. Once the covered SOS button is pushed and held down for five seconds your GPS coordinates will be automatically transmitted every two minutes until you cancel the alert.

The Explorer will also let you download weather forecasts for your current location and for your intended destination.

As with all satcom systems, an active airtime subscription is required. Depending on your usage level, you can opt for an annual contract package or flexible monthly airtime plan.

Included in the inReach subscription is access to an online account from where you can manage device settings and contacts, pre-set messages, MapShare settings and billing. You can also link to social media accounts, setup waypoints and routes and upgrade firmware. garmin.com

SPOT GEN3

SPOT devices use the Globalstar satellite network, which is more limited in its coverage, having fewer satellites over the oceans than the Iridium network. However, as a basic, low-cost, data-only signaling and tracking device it appears to be growing in popularity among the cruising fraternity.

As with the other units, the SPOT Gen3 has an SOS button to alert the GEOS rescue authorities in an emergency. Family and friends can also follow your progress online using a SPOT Share Page, which you can pre-set to automatically update your track every 5, 10, 30 or 60 minutes. There is also a “Check In” facility, whereby you can send up to 10 registered contacts a pre-programmed text message or e-mail with your GPS coordinates, along with a link to your GPS position, which will be retained for later reference and/or integrated into a SPOT Shared Page or social network such as Facebook, Twitter or a SPOT Adventure account. findmespot.com

SATcase

Another method of keeping in contact while at sea is by using a GSM to Iridium cell-to-satellite converter, in the form of a simple case for your iPhone (6+) or Android smartphone.

The SATcase is similar to any ruggedized smartphone case with a hardened, clear panel on the front, through which you access the touchscreen. The big difference is this case has satcom technology built in, so not only does it protect your device from physical damage and fluids, it also converts a standard cellphone into a satphone using a Bluetooth connection, rather than plugs and/or cables.

The SATcase comes with its own Iridium SIM card, so all you have to do is sign up to your chosen Iridium airtime plan. Then you simply download the SATcase app and pair your phone with the case, after which you can operate the phone as normal with all your phone’s contact details remaining the same.

Like all these devices, the SATcase has a guarded SOS button that when pressed, activates a distress call, sending a distress message and your GPS position to rescue services.

The SATcase has its own battery, and plugging a charger into it charges both the phone and case battery together. satcase.com 

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AIRTIME

In a similar fashion to cellphone airtime packages, working out the optimum satellite airtime package for your device is about as easy as knitting jello. There are a number of aspects you should consider carefully before you sign up to any package:

• Is the plan for global access?

• What is the initial activation fee?

• Is there an annual fee?

• Prepaid or subscription package?

• How long do the prepaid credits last?

• What is the subscription term?

• What charges for data/voice/text above your subscription limit?

• Is there an airtime rollover option?

Whatever package you choose, flexibility is key, especially if you’re not sure at first how much airtime you’ll actually need. Though there’s often a small charge, it could be worth selecting a rollover option whereby any unused minutes get tagged onto the following month’s allowance.

June 2018

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